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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

August 24: It’s Probably Iowa or Bust for Trump’s Republican Rivals

There are all kinds of scenarios you can read about late challenges to Donald Trump’s very likely Republican presidential nomination. I decided to rain on one such parade at New York:

Among the Republicans who are scheming to prevent Donald Trump’s third straight presidential nomination, there seems to be a notion that if the GOP presidential field him can be winnowed in Iowa and New Hampshire, some savior of the party will emerge and beat him in a one-on-one fight. The argument seems to go back to a highly debatable (I’d actually call it wrong) proposition: The large field of rivals was the crucial factor in enabling Trump to win his first nomination in 2016. But even if it were true that a smaller field could have vanquished Trump in 2016, he’s arguably a much stronger candidate right now than he was eight years ago. For example: He’s currently at 55.8 percent among Republican voters nationally in the RealClearPolitics polling averages. In 2016, he did not hit 50 percent in any national poll prior to nailing down the nomination in May.

Still, some say we should ignore the national polls and just focus on the early state races that could produce a Trump-vanquishing champion. That’s exactly what New Hampshire governor Chris Sununu argued Monday in a New York Times op-ed:

“The best indicator of Mr. Trump’s strength is looking to where the voters are paying attention: in states where candidates are campaigning, television ads are running, and there is a wide range of media attention on every candidate.

“In Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two states that will vote in the 2024 Republican primaries, Mr. Trump is struggling. In both Iowa and New Hampshire, he is consistently polling in the low 40 percent range. The floor of his support may be high, but his ceiling is low.”

I wouldn’t call a candidate who has a 26-point lead in Iowa (again, per the RCP averages) and a 30-point lead in New Hampshire one who is “struggling” in those two states. Sununu appears to assume anyone who is not for Trump now will never support him, which wasn’t true in 2016 (when he gained strength every time a rival dropped out) and isn’t much supported by the evidence of Trump’s high favorability numbers among Republicans today.

At some early point, if Trump keeps winning big, he’s going to become unbeatable. No Republican candidate who has won both Iowa and New Hampshire has ever been denied the presidential nomination. Will Trump be the first? It sure sounds like another of those Establishment Republican fantasies whereby Trump is regularly underestimated.

Indeed, the bigger question about the early states in 2024 is whether Trump will have nailed down the nomination before the field is small enough to give anyone a clean shot at the heavy front-runner. Several candidates (notably Chris Christie and Vivek Ramaswamy) are focusing mostly on New Hampshire; they aren’t going to drop out after an underwhelming performance in Iowa. Tim Scott and Nikki Haley are likely to hang onto their candidacies fanatically until their home state of South Carolina — the fourth state to vote — holds its primary in late February.

Even without the post-Iowa winnowing Sununu is counting on, it’s true there is a history of New Hampshire voters interrupting the premature victory celebrations of Iowa winners in both parties. Is it possible an Iowa win by Trump would be Pyrrhic, dooming his candidacy?

That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense once you examine the recent Republican candidates who have won Iowa and then quickly succumbed in New Hampshire and beyond. In 2008, 2012, and 2016, Iowa was won by Mike HuckabeeRick Santorum, and Ted Cruz, respectively. Huckabee barely had two nickels to rub together; Santorum and Cruz upset national front-runners (Mitt Romney and Donald Trump) who came back to crush them in New Hampshire and later primaries. None of these doomed Iowa winners are in anything like the position Trump is in right now.

Anything’s possible in politics, and Trump’s legal troubles could in theory extend the contest for the nomination even if he’s winning initially (though so far those legal troubles seem to be helping him among Republicans). Candidates should definitely plan beyond the earliest states even if they are unlikely to be around for, say, Florida (where Trump and DeSantis could wage a dual home-turf battle) or Georgia (where Trump’s rivals are angling for an endorsement by Trump’s nemesis Brian Kemp).

But the odds say Trump’s rivals better beat him or at least give him a scare in Iowa, where it’s possible to punch above your weight with a superior ground game. It’s also a state the 45th president lost in 2016. If he romps there, he’s probably all but a lock for the nomination, barring crazy developments. And all those pleas to candidates to get out of the way of a fictional Trump-slayer will represent a waste of time and energy.

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